The very partial redemption of Steven Moffat


We learned last week that Steven Moffat is stepping down as Dr Who showrunner. Many Whovians couldn’t be happier about this fact. John Elledge in the New Statesman notes that:

In online geekdom, the reaction to Friday’s news that the next series of Doctor Who would be his last was reminiscent of the bit at the end of The Return of the Jedi, where all the Ewoks start dancing. A substantial chunk of the fandom wasn’t just happy Moffat was going, they were crowing: it was less like a TV writer changing jobs and more akin to the fall of a dictatorship.

Cleary the nub of this is that many people think the show has gotten worse since Moffat took over showrunner. But if that was all there was to it then I doubt the criticisms of him would be quite so ardent and personal.

Elledge’s theory appears to be that the problem is that Moffat comes across as prickly and condescending in public appearances. That probably doesn’t help but I think that’s not quite it. Being able to warm to someone who’s prickly and condescending is after all a precondition for being a fan of a show whose central character is an often overbearing god like creature.

More important is probably the sense that Moffat is a mysoginist whose female characters are ill served by his writing. My defence of him on this point is going to be very half hearted indeed.

I’m not prepared to follow Elledge in dismissing Moffat’s habit of making comments about women that are some combination of boorish, demeaning and stupid simply as a communication error. It is that but it’s also a substantive problem. Someone in a position of power both in the workplace and in popular culture should be not be saying things like:

There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands.

You tend not to find anything that crude in his writing. Nonetheless, a kind of ‘everyday sexism’ permeates his work. Taken individually his female characters are admirably strong and capable. But taken together they start to look like a collection of either fantasies or jokes rather rounded human beings. And it’s rare for them to attain the depth or complexity of their male counterparts.

Compare, for example, Rory and Amy. His character is very well drawn and it’s genuinely moving to see the steal emerge from inside a man who initially seems a bit of a wet blanket. But despite having more screen time and a bigger role in the plot Amy has nothing like that. She’s as generically feisty in her final episode as in her first.

The most credible defence of Moffat that can be offered on this point is that:

…you can genuinely see him responding to his critics. He didn’t cast a female Doctor (and thank god, given how he writes women); but he did cast a female Master, and he’s repeatedly established that a female Doctor would make perfect sense within the fiction.

The change goes broader than that. Writing female characters remains one of Moffat’s weaknesses but he has definitely gotten better of late. Clara’s initial arc was terrible: she was little more than a problem to be solved. But in the next two series she was given space to develop to the point where she was as near to the Doctor’s equal as any human is ever going to be. She can pass for him, call him out when he’s in the wrong, and eventually sets off in a TARDIS for adventures of her own. Most importantly by having Clara’s exit flip the dynamics of Donna’s, Moffat acknowledged that the show has often mistreated its female characters. Sure you can dispute whether Moffat is in any position to lecture Russell T. Davies on feminism, and he still screws ups with things like giving Clara a controlling dick of boyfriend who no one ever seems to notice is a controlling dick. That kind of thing is undoubtedly a step backward but it seems like there have been more steps forward in Moffat’s recent work.

There’s of course, no one individual empowered to forgive sins against women. And if there was it would not be a man. And there’s certainly an argument that he doesn’t deserve it. The women in his stories have gotten better but that doesn’t make them good. He’s arguably only done that under pressure of public slating. And I have no idea whether he’s making the same kind of efforts as an employer and a public figure that he is as a writer. Nonetheless, any evaluation of him does at least need to acknowledge these efforts.


3 thoughts on “The very partial redemption of Steven Moffat

  1. I think a really telling example of Moffat’s treatment of female characters was when the Doctor recognised a burnt Clara in “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” because he can taste (or something, I don’t quite remember) “Lancashire, sass”. That’s the entire summation of her personality, and one half of it was the city where she was born.

    She did get slightly better, but that’s a pretty dire way to start off with a main character.

  2. a collection of either fantasies or jokes rather rounded human beings

    The same is true of his male characters, though. He’s a sitcom writer: he doesn’t write characters so much as punchline-delivery-mechanisms, and that is the same whether they happen to be played by an actor or an actress.

    Rory, for example, doesn’t develop. In the very first episode he ever appears in, he’s a nerd, devoted to Amy, who gets tongue-tied over little things, but when the chips are down he notices the important details, and most importantly when the going gets tough he doesn’t back down, and though he doesn’t have any special skills, simply by refusing to run away and being the solid backbone for the other, crazier, characters, he helps save the world.

    And in the last episode he appears in he’s exactly the same.

    Personally, I think the thing that makes people think he’s dodgy on the subject of women is that as a sitcom writer, he never passes up a laugh, even an easy one. And an easy way to get laughs is to pick something that’s true, and exaggerate it. And difference between the sexes are an old field for doing that, one that he’s been ploughing since Joking Apart.

    It’s not that he necessarily holds these exaggerated views, it’s that his entire career has been based on his uncommonly good ability to make people laugh, and he’s not going to let a little thing like hate-‘blogs on Tumblr put him off.

    Put simply, if he can write a line that makes four million people laugh, and makes ten thousand want to write essays on the internet about how awful he is, then he’s won.

  3. Pingback: A Eulogy for Moffat’s Dr Who | Matter Of Facts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s